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Microsoft's Database Riddle
Microsoft is roaring about its next SQL server release, code-named Sphinx. But can the upgrade fend off mounting competition?
-- by Tom Henderson

Microsoft SQL Server dominates the Windows NT database market, but the company isn't resting on the product's laurels. Concerned about mounting competition in the NT arena, Microsoft's database architects are piecing together a major SQL Server upgrade, code-named Sphinx, that's slated to ship late this year.

Sphinx, expected to be named SQL Server 7.0, is a critical upgrade for Microsoft and thousands of NT shops that are expected to deploy server databases this year. According to market researcher International Data Corp. (IDC), NT database sales will more than double to $560 million in 1997.

Microsoft commands more than 50 percent of the NT database arena, but its grip on the market may be loosening. "Microsoft is still the largest player," said Dan Kusnetzky, research director of IDC's UNIX and client/server operating environments program. "But its market share appears to be declining each year as NT moves into larger IT shops where Oracle, IBM, Informix and Sybase are the norm."

In fact, IDC says more than 20 percent of NT database shoppers are buying Oracle7 (up from a mere 2 percent in 1994), and dozens of prominent NT customers are beta testing IBM's DB2 Universal Database for NT, which holds less than 5 percent of the NT market. The new DB2 release, slated for delivery this summer, supports multiple data types, including audio and video clips, as well as fingerprints. It can also import data from DB2 on UNIX and mainframes, meaning you can scale a DB2 database up or down, depending on your needs.

Microsoft can't match DB2's or Oracle7's scalability to Unix and mainframes, but Sphinx will boast several impressive features, including support for 64-bit computing; dynamic row level locking for improved data integrity; seamless fail over to a secondary NT server via Microsoft Wolfpack (see feature story in this issue) and enhanced remote access for mobile clients. And as you might expect, SQL Server's engine will be more tightly integrated with NT, according to Tom Kreyche, Microsoft SQL Server product manager.

By the time the database ships, Compaq and other hardware vendors are expected to test eight-way Pentium Pro servers capable of running NT and the new SQL Server. That's a dramatic improvement over today's four-way NT servers, but it still doesn't approach the high-end UNIX database market, where 32 processor servers and massively parallel systems are not uncommon.

Sphinx also offers OLE DB support, which will let SQL Server fetch data without knowing where the data actually resides on a network. OLE DB also supports multi-hosting, or the ability for NT servers to retrieve and track large data objects from more than one host.

Microsoft is also creating tight links between its development tools and SQL Server. The company's new Visual Studio 97 application development suite includes tools for debugging Transact-SQL (the native SQL Server programming language) and events surrounding stored procedures (small applications that live in the SQL Server that are designed to trigger events or enhance performance)

Sphinx is certainly a promising database upgrade, but anything less than a solid product release could send customers into the waiting arms of Oracle, IBM or other database vendors now targeting the NT market.

Windows Magazine, May 1997, page NT03.